On hearing from God. Or not.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 October

Too many Christians use “God told me” as a way to tell people, “So the discussion’s over.”

In this story I’m gonna bounce around in time a bit. Bear with me.

So much easier to hear God in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Ten years ago. My pastor and I were discussing church stuff, as we did. We were chatting about the reasons why people join or leave a church. I casually mentioned that when there’s no obvious reason to quit a church (i.e. abusive people, leaders who won’t lead, heretic teachers, false prophets running wild, it’s a cult, etc.) people have no business leaving unless God tells them it’s okay.

“You know,” he blurted out, “in 20 years I’ve never heard a person say ‘God told me’ as much as you do.”

Yeah, it was a bad habit I was in. I’ve since got out of it.

No, not because God wasn’t really talking to me. Nor because he’s stopped. He still does. I just don’t point it out as often. Because people get the wrong idea, like my pastor did.

See, in his experience, Christians tend to use the line “God told me” for two reasons, both bad. The most obvious one is they’re showing off. “Look at me! God talks to me. Lemme tell you what he said.” They’re like name-droppers who wanna let everyone know they know celebrities, or important people, as if this makes them important too. As if God doesn’t talk to every Christian (though not all of us are listening). Now, I knew God talks to everyone, so I wasn’t saying “God told me” because I believed he was talking to me more than others. I wasn’t trying to show off. But if that’s what it looked like, best I stopped it. So I did.

The other, bigger problem are those Christians who say “God told me” in order to end a conversation. ’Cause God, they believe, gets the final word. In other words, “I understand what you’re saying. I get it. But God said this to me. So I’m not gonna listen to you; I’m gonna follow God. God said it; I believe it; that settles it. End of discussion. You can shut up now. You’re not gonna change my mind.”

That’s not what I meant either. ’Cause I don’t believe God gets the final word. As demonstrated when the LORD told Abraham and Moses, “Y’know what, I’m gonna go destroy those people,” and both guys actually talked him down. In the end Abraham wasn’t successful, Ge 18.22-33, 19.24-25 but in the end Moses was. Ex 32.7-14 So was Amos. Am 7.1-6 So was Hezekiah. Is 38.1-8 Not every decree of God is written in stone. Some of ’em are open for negotiation.

So I wasn’t trying to show off; I wasn’t trying to have the final word and pretend God had the final word; but I had pushed my pastor’s buttons in using “God told me” a little too often.

Now, let’s jump back nine years before that…

I was driving back to college with a friend after a completely useless school function. Here, as in the previous story, I casually mentioned God had told me something. My friend (whom I’ll call Beavis, because I can) was skeptical. “What do you mean when you say ‘God told me’?” he asked. “Did he tell you through scripture? Through circumstances? Did he use an audible voice?”

I’d never had to articulate before just how God speaks to people. (I’ve gotten better at it.) So I fumbled: “It’s not an audible voice; it’s not circumstances; it’s just God telling me.”

“But how’d you know it was God?” he said.

“Well, circumstances lined up…”

“Then it’s circumstances,” he said.

No, circumstances were confirmation. But again, I had trouble articulating this.

Beavis didn’t grow up charismatic. (Neither had I.) So he limited the voice of God to those three things: Scripture, circumstances, or audible voice. He couldn’t imagine another option. Hearing God meant I had experienced one of those three, and now that Beavis had pinned the cause down to circumstances, he felt pretty pleased with himself for knocking away my silly supernatural talk. As non-charismatics do. “I hear nothing, and neither do you. Ha.”

And forward five or six years…

I learned how to articulate just how God talks to people, ’cause I had to teach it to the kids.

Not my biological kids. I taught junior high bible classes for three years. Of course the kids wanted to know how God speaks to us. Of course I needed to explain the process in a way 13-year-olds can understand. Since the age of 13 is right about the time when kids no longer automatically believe everything their teachers tell them, I had to explain it in a way where they could objectively prove me right. Or wrong.

Short answer: God drops information into every individual human’s spirit. Each human translates this info, sometimes poorly, into their native tongue. Me, that’d be Californian English; the folks in the bible, biblical Hebrew or biblical Aramaic or koine Greek. Ideally we confirm it’s God by comparing his message to one person, with his message to another person. He tells me something; he tells you the very same thing; we compare notes; we realize it’s from God.

At the time, I knew very few Christians who’d describe hearing God like that. Since, I’ve met lots of Christians who’d describe hearing God exactly like that. Still, too few of us teach on it. I haven’t found a lot of literature. Charismatics simply don’t talk about our experiences. I have lots of theories as to why that is, and won’t dig through ’em here. I’ll just say our silence doesn’t help anyone get any better at hearing God, or recognizing when it’s him talking.

And back to my pastor 10 years ago.

Thanks to my pastor’s comment, it got me thinking about the ways people misread “God told me,” and the way they might misunderstand me when I say it. Humans tend to read our own attitudes into other people’s words. If they’re pessimists, they’ll read all my stuff as if I’m a pessimist just like them. If sarcastic, they’ll assume all my comments are just as snarky. If positive, they’ll get confused by every sarcastic comment I make. Too much chance of misinterpretation. So I decided to drop “God told me” from my language.

And I found I shouldn’t even have to say it.

Y’see, when God tells me something, I don’t have to say, “God told me,” or “Thus saith the LORD,” or make any such declaration. All I gotta do is share it. No attribution necessary.

If the person I’m sharing it with happens to listen to God, their reaction is nearly always gonna be, “Holy [euphemism for excrement]! Where’d you hear that? Who told you that?” Legitimate God-stuff tends to floor such people.

If they don’t listen to God, or don’t have the hang of it yet, their reaction varies. Sometimes it’s surprise and amazement, ’cause I just said “the very thing I’ve been thinking”—and aren’t aware just who put that idea into their heads. If they’re resisting God, it’ll irritate ’em: “Ugh; I don’t wanna hear that again.” If they’re just dense, they’ll nonetheless chew on it a little. God’s words tend to have that effect.

But if I wanna make sure God actually did tell me something, I never have to say God told me a thing. God’s hearers will tell me. “You got that from God, didn’t you?” Of course. I can’t come up with that stuff.

Christ Almighty! is gonna have various things in it which God told me. I leave it to you to figure out which statements those are. But all God’s stuff got filtered through me, so it’s 99 percent me. Hey, what can I tell you?—God likes to use inferior tools.